Featured image for How'd We Do? Grading the 2022 Dieline Trend Report

How'd We Do? Grading the 2022 Dieline Trend Report

by Bill McCool on 07/14/2022 | 9 Minute Read

“Don’t look back. You can never look back.”

As an obnoxious record collector with an inexplicable aversion to the Eagles, likely spurred by THAT scene from THAT movie, I regret to admit that I spend a lot of time—too much time—thinking about Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” The song is in the canon of a sentimental strain of 80s dad rock that starts to speak to you as you become a person of a certain age. I can only tell you that those sentiments you're feeling when you first really experience the song are beyond your control and that Henley is talking about a lot more than just a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac—that much is incredibly obvious. But there’s a good nugget of advice tucked away in there, especially if you’re a person prone to looking back and relitigating the past.

That also applies to design in a lot of ways, too, and most other creative endeavors. Don’t get stuck in the past. Don’t linger on what you’ve already done. Be a shark, and keep going, dammit

Of course, what’s the fun in always looking ahead? We’ve been in the business of making trend reports for a handful of years now, but we’ve never revisited those elusive prognostications and have been ever-charging towards the next BIG thing. 

Well, that stops today. We’re looking in the rearview mirror at our latest trend report to see how accurate we were about the year ahead in branding and packaging design. We even assigned grades because it's all about accountability, baby. Try as we might, we can't be right all the time. Are they accurate? Maybe. Biased since I also happen to be the managing editor? Absolutely not, but also, absolutely maybe?

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We Love the 90s

Grade: B+

“More fun and less precious.” 

That’s what designer Alex Center of Brooklyn’s CENTER said of the inevitable return of the 90s and how it has overwhelmingly seeped into our world. Admittedly, you didn’t need much of a crystal ball to see that the aesthetics of the 90s would eventually return. I don’t know if this is a hard and fast rule about retro-decade resurgence, but it feels like two decades must pass before the KIDS(™) get their grubby little hands on it and turn it into creative fodder—in this case, outrageous colors, gradients galore, logo shadows and Mountain Dew-level extreme typography choices, because it’s a big ugly clashing world out there, and that’s OK.

As long as the world continues to burn, the retro vibes will remain strong as folks continue to look to the past for comfort, even if the motion sickness of nostalgia isn't the healthiest of things. JKR’s Over Easy managed to look more like a 90s fashion brand than a breakfast bar, while Process Coffee went heavy on the VHS vibes. Coca-Cola's Byte served up pixelated goodness, and Pzaz brought the rave aesthetics to an energizing misting spray (yes, there are sprays for that).

We should give ourselves an A+ because it’s STILL everywhere, but I’ll knock the grade down a skosh for its obviousness.

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All-Inclusive Design is the Norm

Grade: C-

In general, I do think design is making strides when it comes to being all-inclusive. This quote from Natasha Jen in the trend report feels instructive:

“The products themselves really need to be inclusive,” said Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram. “There’s a disconnect to try and design all-inclusive packaging for a brand that never intended to be, say, gender-inclusive in the first place. The design is really about the positioning of the product and services, though. What type of brand are you? Are you more celebratory, more playful? Are you a more serious brand? All these creative directions are a way to respond to inclusion. They’re all possible, meaning that there isn’t a single creative or visual answer.”

That said, more needs to be done. 

In particular, brands have turned Pride Month into an exercise in virtue signaling and rainbow-washing. But it's also true that they need to do more of that virtue signaling, especially outside of June, in light of Florida’s bigoted and malicious “Don’t Sat Gay Bill” and the numerous anti-LGBTQ+ (many of which are anti-trans) bills making their way through statehouses across the US. Brands love to pay lip service to the LGBTQ+ crowd (and BIPOC demographics, for that matter) while supporting politicians with narrow-minded, hateful positions (hi, PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch).

There are gains, to be sure, but brands need to do better.

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Flat Design

Grade: B+

It’s everywhere you look when it comes to big, global brands, with firms stopping at nothing to strip away the excesses of their identities. Sprite scarped away the starburst and Coconut Bliss (now Cosmic Bliss) turned into a flat, Draplin-esque affair. Even Kraft got a wee bit flatter, though not entirely. We're still designing for the phone, and if that means scaling away personality or quirky embellishments, then so be it.

That said, someone—anyone—please repurpose the original Google logo. I miss our gaudy ways.

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Travel Through Packaging

Grade: A

Inflation’s a motherfucker. And while folks are acting like COVID never happened (salutations, newest variant), you might have been sidelined to staycation status as gas prices continue to rise for absolutely no good reason. And plenty of packaging projects came out with travel on the brain.

You can go to the land of vacations with Leisuretown or get a taste of New Zealand with Talbot Cheese. Experience the land of cereal with Rogue or take a much-needed coffee break with Here & Now. What about the chill beach vibes from Hereafter or the storybook worlds of the puzzle series Sasa in Wonderland? You can even take a trip to Stranger Things’ West coast Hawkins haunt Surfer Boy Pizza, courtesy of Walmart because you don't just need palm trees to feel like you're on vacation. Sometimes it's just a piece of retro packaging to take you away.

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Grade: B+

For my 10-year-old’s birthday this year, she got loads of manga and plenty of Demon Slayer paraphernalia. She also got these pretty nifty mushroom glasses and a mushroom t-shirt to boot. 

Now, I’m definitely not saying that psychedelics have made it to the children, but the mushroom is having a moment because there’s an abundance of fungi everywhere you look. Think fried mushroom snacks, clarity tonics made from lion’s mane, and even mushroom coffee. There’s a softening of attitudes towards mushrooms and their many healing properties. Of course, there’s nothing psychedelic about those products, but they point to a curiosity in consumers regarding the benefits of mushrooms.

While that might not pass muster with some of our readers, I would only remind you that the slow march to legalization is a real thing, and Rhode Islandis also preparing legislation to decriminalize mushrooms because of their therapeutic benefits. We also have PLANT—it’s one of the first pieces of brand design we’ve seen for a psilocybin dispensary (and an “out-of-state” one at that). 

And that's just the tip of the iceberg, folks. 

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All Things Dreamy and Magical

Grade: A

Consumers don’t just want to take a vacation; they also want to go to imaginary lands that exist far outside the realm of their own consciousness.

“I feel like we’re still in a kind of not-entirely-post-Covid period,” Natasha Jen said in the trend report. “We’re coming out of a very dark time, and people naturally crave something that feels and looks very positive.”

And that’s pretty spot on—bold colors and ALL of the gradients are clearly on display this year, as well as brands creating a heady mood. Soulful coffee uses acrylic paint to dazzling effect, while Two Drifter’s Rum had us basking in the glow of a retro sunset. Psychedelic Water and its non-psychoactive (yet) beverages showcase their shimmering cans, while the card game I Am On Edge uses trippy captcha-style type to create a whole-ass mood. Kilmartin Gin found inspiration in cave drawings to create a mysterious piece of branding, and Zipeng Zhu got gradient-happy with his Pride-themed packaging for Jonathan Van Ness’s haircare line JVN.

So, yes, the vibes are definitely not off.

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The Age of the Microbrand

Grade: D-

Gonna' have to take the L on this one, guys. It’s not so much that microbrands, or brands that are hyper-targeting very specific demographics, don’t exist—they absolutely do. But when supply chain woes and inflation hit a 40-year high, you get a new Kraft Mac & Cheese, i.e., the comforts we can afford.

In other words, it feels like most brands are casting as wide a net as possible, and there might not be piles of capital lying around for dog espresso or gluten-free croutons.

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Celeb Meals

Grade: B+

Squint-your-ears-and-he’s-maybe-a-rapper Jack Harlowe is getting KFC meals, and Doja Catbrought back the Taco Bell Mexican pizza. The latter will also star in a “TikTok” musical about the resurrected bong staple with national treasure Dolly Parton.

So, yeah. I’d say the celeb meal is having a healthy year.

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All Things Metaverse

Grade: C-

You can’t skip a rock without some techboi talking about NFTs or the metaverse.

So, why the C?

We’re very much in the metaverse’s salad days. Zuck is engineering costly headsets, and kids are still paying actual money to accessorize their avatars on Roblox. But when it comes to living in the immersive digital worlds folks are dreaming up, it’s fair to say that we’re just not there yet.

But, from the shape of things, we will get there eventually. Taco Bell plans to open restaurants in the metaverse, and Adobe has made Substance 3D tools for students and teachers free. Like it or not, 3D content will be king (even if logos are getting flat), and designers needed to familiarize themselves with these tools yesterday.

“Smart brands are getting ‘metaverse-ready’ by growing their 3D and immersive content creation capabilities. That means that creative artists with expertise in 3D have a wealth of opportunities,” said Scott Belsky, chief product officer and executive vice president of Adobe Creative Cloud, back in June. “These innovations provide new superpowers to the rapidly growing number of creative people using Substance 3D.”

So while some of us are out here making fun of NFTs and Web3 dweebs (see; me), the future is nigh.

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Buy Better

Grade: B

Inflation’s become the overarching theme of 2022, and it’s certainly put a damper on, geez, I don’t know, everything? You can’t even eat the rich without overpaying for it.

Still, consumers DO want to spend their money on ethically made, conscientious products, and brands—particularly eco-friendly start-ups—are following suit. We’ve seen plenty of product innovation over the year thus far. AWSM Sauce makes powdered ketchup that ditches the plastic bottle—just add water, and it’s dipping time. Plink gives off big Alka Seltzer energy as it’s a joyful tasty beverage that comes in tablet form—again, just add water, and you’re off the proverbial races. What’s more, many of the top winners from our very own awards show this past year highlighted sustainable design, and that’s no small thing.

Regardless, wallets are tightening all over the country, and while gas prices might be starting to dip, consumers are feeling the pinch and trying to get more bang for their buck. Will that come at the cost of product innovation and unsustainable or wasteful brands? 

So sayeth the 8-ball, “reply hazy, try again.”